Angelo and Cross subtitled their 1993 book on classroom assessment A Handbook for College Teachers. Weighing in at a hefty 427 pages, the book makes for an intimidating presence on one’s desk, and struck me more as an academic volume than the practical guide implied by the title. That being said, Angelo and Cross have provided the reader with some tried and tested nuggets of wisdom that may be of great use to a novice teacher trying to evaluate—and define the parameters of—student performance in their classroom.
As the authors rightly observed, assessment begins before the first class session has even taken place. Setting goals and generating learning outcomes are vital to the process of assessment, as this process makes it evident from the outset precisely what will be assessed. In many ways, this work of ‘pre-teaching’ is a macrocosm of handing out rubrics and assignment sheets. Even if students are given the opportunity to create their own outcomes for a class, this process still creates a structure, and helps prevent confusion among students when they receive feedback from their instructors.
One of the more useful elements of Angelo and Cross’s texts is the incorporation of concrete examples throughout. While I cannot say I have used the authors’ Classroom Assessment Techniques (or CATs, because who can resist that acronym?) exactly as they are presented here, I can certainly recognize bits and pieces of pedagogical strategies I picked up during my time teaching. However, as with many handbooks that claim a generalist approach to teaching at the college level, Angelo and Cross’s book relies on broad, expansive definitions of the skills student develop to succeed academically. Many of these skillsets seem tailored to writing-intensive courses, which makes sense, but potentially limits the applicability of the advice being offered. It’s difficult to imagine that any teacher would heave this book down from a shelf and consult it if there were a more concise, discipline-specific text on offer.
While I understand the value of generating information on student learning at every possible juncture, much of Classroom Assessment Techniques seems designed to emphasize this. I wonder if a revised edition could focus exclusively on guiding teachers’ pedagogical praxis, rather than telling them why assessment matters. Presumably, if they are reading this book, they’ve grasped the latter already. This kind of slimming-down could serve two beneficial functions: it could make the task of assessing student learning less daunting from the off, as well as keeping teachers from internalizing this urgent need to continually create and curate assessment metrics. My fear, based on experience as a first-time teacher working chiefly with first-time college students, is that teachers might bring that urgency into the classroom, causing assessment itself to affect student learning. Angelo and Cross extolled the virtues of ‘starting small’, but I have found continuous assessment measures to be most effective when the stakes are low for the students themselves, especially in a liberal arts setting that doesn’t always cater to the specific aptitudes of each individual in the classroom.
Note: This lesson plan fits into a syllabus on adolescent identity development and popular culture. Students will read about a range of identity development models and theories, and reflect on their own identity development through a pop culture lens. They will analyze a number of cultural artifacts—from television series to graphic novels, via film and literature—which pertain to different areas of identity development, and critique their representations of social identities according to the aforementioned theoretical frameworks.
This lesson focuses on sexual identity development. Students will have read about relevant models, including Cass’s (1979) Model of Homosexual Identity Formation and Dillon et al.’s (2011) Unifying Model of Sexual Identity Development. In class, they will watch and discuss a series of clips from the 1996-2003 television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, focusing on the sexual identity development of Willow Rosenberg, a central character who comes out as a lesbian in the show’s fourth season.
The class will begin with a student-led discussion of Cass’s (1979) Model of Homosexual Identity Formation. Two students will have signed up ahead of time to lead this discussion, which will include a question and answer session with their peers and the instructor. Ideally, the discussion will address the outdated terminology and narrow understanding of minoritized sexual identities demonstrated in this model.
A second pair of students will then lead discussion on Dillon et al.’s (2011) Unifying Model of Sexual Identity Development. The class will compare and contrast the two models, addressing the affordances and limitations of each. The chief difference between the models is that Dillon et al.’s does not follow a strict linear trajectory in terms of lifespan development. However, Cass’s stage-based model does lend itself better to establishing a consistent arc for character development in pop culture narratives.
Having demonstrated their understanding of the two aforementioned models, students will then apply this knowledge to an example drawn from pop culture. They will watch a number of clips from Buffy the Vampire Slayer which demonstrate the trajectory of Willow Rosenberg. A handout will be provided to contextualize the milieu of the show, and Willow herself, in the students’ understanding. Clips from the first three seasons will center on Willow’s schoolgirl crush on her best friend Xander, and her relationship with Oz, a taciturn rock musician (who also happens to be a werewolf). Later clips will introduce the character of Tara, with whom Willow enters into a romantic relationship in the fourth season. The bulk of the clips will focus on Willow’s negotiation of her newfound lesbian identity, and how this affects the dynamic of her relationships with Tara, Xander, Buffy, and others.
Students will then dicuss these clips in the context of Cass’s and Dillon et al.’s models, determining how closely—or not—Willow’s development adheres to the parameters of these models. We will also examine the narrative of the clips we have just watched in terms of pop culture tropes around sexuality (for instance, the idea of ‘experimenting’ with queer identities during college, which fits closely with some of the tenets of Dillon et al.’s model, and comes up in a dispute between Willow and Tara in the fifth season episode “Tough Love”).
Finally, students will discuss whether Willow’s storylines constitute an ‘authentic’ representation of sexual identity development, as defined by Cass and/or Dillon et al., or if the depiction of her burgeoning queerness seems improbable or even stereotypical. This exercise is designed to strengthen students’ analytical skills, as well as demonstrating the ways in which identity development theories can be applied in different interpretive contexts.
Over the course of the semester, students will be asked to reflect on their own social identities, and how their understanding of them has—or continues to—develop. Their written assignments will give them the opportunity to critique the different models and cultural artifacts we have discussed, while using them as a theoretical framework to explore their own identities. Students will be given a number of different social identities to choose from, so that no one feels pressured to write about an identity they’d prefer to keep private. Students may also provide their own evidence from other pop culture artifacts than the ones we’ve discussed, as long as they can make a clear connection between that evidence and their conclusions about identity development.
Many of the strategies advanced by Elizabeth Barkley in Student Engagement Techniques reminded me of my early experiences teaching college students. When I started teaching in 2013, several of the principles outlined in this book had already been integrated into what was considered good pedagogical practice. It may have helped that my mentors at this time were relatively young, innovative teachers themselves, but the most significant overlap between their collective philosophy of education and Barkley’s ideas about student engagement was that they actively cared, not only about my peers’ success as first-time teachers, but also about the students we were working with.
In her introductory chapters, Barkley notes that engagement happens where active learning meets student motivation. Synthesizing these ideals, she argues, is contingent on students feeling involved in a classroom community. In the learning outcomes listed on the sample syllabi I was given before I started teaching, this was referred to as a ‘discourse community’. While this particular turn of phrase certainly arose from the subject I was to be teaching—freshman composition—I experienced a disconnect between my understanding of it and what my students could be expected to make of it. ‘Discourse community’ spoke to a larger, institutional fellowship, in which students self-identified as scholars. However, for first-year students in a required English class, this was a big ask. If we had proffered ‘classroom community’ as an achievable goal, the broader meaning of this might have landed with the students.
As Barkley asserts, student engagement relies on students perceiving themselves as able to succeed. Many of my early students actively identified themselves as ‘bad writers’; they were predisposed to the idea that they would struggle in an English class because they lacked some inherent skill with written communication. They had all but given up before they began, so getting them to value a freshman comp curriculum was itself a challenge. Barkley posits that valuing learning is not the same as wanting to fulfill learning outcomes. She stresses the importance of both cognitive and affective engagement in class content—students have to care about the material, regardless of external stimuli such as grades, if they are to engage with it in a meaningful way. She cites Csikszentmihalyi (1993, 1997) on the concept of “flow”, analogizing it to deep engagement or, in my reading, immersion in a learning activity. While there is dissonance between Csikszentmihalyi’s idea of “flow” and how my writing students conceptualized it (as the fluid, cohesive expression of their ideas), Barkley’s elevation of deep engagement definitely speaks to the circumstances in which I have found my students most invested in their work.
Similarly, Barkley stresses the importance of ‘performance’ in the classroom—students learn better when offered opportunities to demonstrate their newly-constructed knowledge and link it to what they already know. Likewise, a multicultural approach to pedagogy empowers students to see themselves in the curriculum. This level of identification with course content is also likely to foster student engagement. This leads me to a question I hope to consider moving forward: is Barkley’s approach to engaged learning geared disproportionately toward the humanities?
While multicultural pedagogical strategies, student-generated curricular content, and cognitive-affective engagement are easily achievable in, say, a writing classroom, how do we implement these ideas in STEM fields. The practical, performative element is always-already present in contexts where theoretical learning is consistently applied to practical tasks, but many of the techniques Barkley valorizes seem more difficult to translate to scientific curricular contexts. I may be speaking from (lack of) experience when I raise this point, but I think it provides food for thought for teachers in diverse fields who also value meaningful student engagement.
In the introduction to his book on college teaching practice, Ken Bain (2004) states his intended audience as teachers seeking to improve their own pedagogical prowess, but also claims his book to be of use to “students and their parents” (5). The implication here is clear: Bain is selling his book not only as a guide for teachers, but also as a means of ensuring that college students can locate, and take classes with, the best instructors at their institutions. Unfortunately, What the Best College Teachers Do provides little in the way of practical advice for students whose self-authored learning outcomes require only ‘the best’ instructors. Indeed, Bain affords his readers only the most nebulous of insights on how to become better teachers.
The interdisciplinary scope of this book, while ambitious, is arguably its downfall. Without the organizing focus of a subject matter or even a broad field of study, Bain’s observations on effective teaching practice must err towards the universal. As such, the content of the book is largely islanded in abstraction. Bain makes declarative generalizations about how best to teach college students, and while much of his advice—for instance, relating the curriculum to students’ ‘real-life’ professional goals—is sound, it is by no means applicable to every instructional context. While problem solving and critical thinking are undoubtedly vital skills to develop in students as they are initiated into a collegiate discourse community, it is naïve to assume that these skills manifest in a homogenous arsenal that can be deployed across the spectrum of, say, a liberal-arts education. Similarly, the methods adopted to engender this kind of intellectual rigor in students is bound to vary between disciplines and institutions, depending on the disparate goals and needs of their attendant student populations.
A central claim of What the Best College Teachers Do is that teaching is more than the unilateral transmission of knowledge from instructor to student. Instead, Bain argues that knowledge must be co-constructed by instructors and students, through collaborative endeavor and the creation of a “natural critical learning environment” (99). On this, he and I are in agreement. However, this is not a new idea among college teachers. At the end of my first year as a graduate teaching assistant, when participants in our composition pedagogy practicum were asked to write a statement of our teaching philosophies, almost every new teacher wrote about their aspiration to collaborate with their students in the kind of environment Bain valorizes. It’s a winning approach, certainly, but hardly a game-changer these days.
This adherence to established pedagogical principles, bolstered by scattershot examples, is emblematic of my biggest personal issue with What the Best College Teachers Do. Bain’s ideas of ‘good teaching’ are rooted in hierarchical ideas of the college professoriate, and almost entirely untouched by reflexivity or self-scrutiny. Bain notes in his introduction that he did not include a list of the instructors he studied because he did not wish “to notify [his] colleagues who were not included in the study” (11). This is a noble and thoughtful sentiment, in theory. In practice, however, it insulates Bain from criticism for the lack of diversity among the teachers—and types of teachers—he includes in his study. In Chapter 4 alone, Bain identifies 24 of ‘the best’ college teachers as being (presumably cisgender) men. In the same chapter, he mentions a total of five women, only three of whom are alluded to by name.
Bain repeatedly uses language about ‘select’ scholars when referring to Ivy League universities, and always in comparison to ‘open admissions’ schools. Again, this distinction is rife with implication about how the status of an institution reflects the caliber of its students. Furthermore, he identifies the ‘best’ college teachers almost exclusively as tenured professors, and even calls for greater rigor in the process of awarding tenure. This attitude brushes aside the dedicated—and often undervalued—teaching labor of adjuncts, graduate students, and junior faculty. Some of the best teachers I have ever worked with were off the beaten path of the tenure-track. In short, although Bain lays down some useful and legitimate groundwork for the development of good learning environments, his conclusions ultimately emerge from maxims that many college teachers either already know, or ought to have learned by now.
Robert Faunce (2013) invokes bell hooks (1994) to propose a queer, nondemagogic approach to teaching which elevates diversity and a sense of community within the classroom. Faunce’s ideas exert a strong influence over my own teaching philosophies. I view the classroom as a communal learning environment, in which popular prejudices may be put aside in favor of mutual respect and intersectional thinking. A successful class is therefore predicated on the students’ freedom to interact not only with assigned materials, but to participate in open and civil discussion with one another.
In order to promote the “feeling of community” that hooks encourages, I focused my pedagogy on the points of overlap between my students’ experiences and my own. Students in my classes helped design the course according to their own interests. Class discussion was largely student-led. Through group exercises, students couched their understanding of learning outcomes in the language of popular culture. In my freshman composition classes, students performed visual analyses on cultural artifacts ranging from album covers to video blogs, and collaborated on visual projects to advance their own argumentative stances. By grounding their approaches to rhetoric in cultural criticism, students unearthed their own argumentative skills and practice engagement with a discourse community of their peers.
My pedagogical praxis begins at the intersection of social responsibility and cultural awareness. My teaching experience has demonstrated how this can be of use in the college classroom. In my creative writing classes, I encouraged students to grapple with identity politics, assigning stories and poems by Roxane Gay and Audre Lorde alongside the work of Laverne Cox and Beyoncé. These assignments were designed to make students reconsider their definitions of “literature” according to different cultural modes. More often than not, these exercises prompted discussion on the importance of making space for a diverse range of voices. With these exchanges in mind, I have designed my classes to prioritize diversity and pluralism whenever possible.
Faunce, R. (2013). Queer and Nondemagogic Pedagogy in the Classroom. CEA Forum, 42(2), 30-44.
hooks, b. (1994). Teaching to Transgress. New York, NY: Routledge.